I once studied the differences between a society and a community. A society is a collection of highly organised people that are almost totally self-sufficient in all their needs; incomes, homes, cars, insurance, medical aid, etc.

Their aspiration is for ‘independence’. And interdependence, although it is still a reality, is often glossed over. In a society your neighbours are your competition and you need to keep up with the Joneses. On the other hand, communities live in support of one another. For example, if the neighbour’s fence is broken, I help him fix it and if his wife is ill, I pitch in and cook food. In a community ‘interdependence’ is a way of life. The irony is that we seem to aspire to be a society, but as soon as disaster strikes (floods, earthquakes, etc.) our natural reaction is to fall back into a community.

I wanted to find out more about the history of caregiving practices in other parts of the world. I discovered that back in the middle ages, the disabled were integrated as active participants in their communities. Unless they were severely disabled, in which case they were put aside to die or cared for by community structures such as the local church, or a poorhouse. Of course these people suffered immense and institutionalised cruelty. In 1536, King Henry the VIII broke from the Catholic Church and ordered the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ and the disabled were left destitute. But the communities rallied, and in 1538 they called for the reopening of hospitals. Life for the disabled was often harsh and cruel, but no more so than for anyone living in that time. Today, community-oriented people also embrace their disabled members. For example, I read about Australian Maori communities that integrate their disabled into everyday life.

However, when I did some research on modern Western care for the disabled, all I could find was societies: NGOs, church-based structures, a multitude of self-support and self-realisation societies and associations for various types of disabilities. I even found an article about the history of disability as a ‘History of Otherness’, with a ‘Religious Model of Disability’, a ‘Medical Model of Disability’ and a ‘Rights-based Model of Disability’. So, where is the love?

It seems to me that in our love for structure and organisation, we have legislated away the empathy of community care in favour of regulated independence, rights and support structures. Our society seems to have sacrificed the ability to care in favour of rights and entitlements. Please don’t misunderstand me; ambition and aspirations are great, but when it comes at the cost of a caring community, is it worth it? Some people employ caregivers only to misuse them, thereby destroying any remnant of love and care. As a result the job of the caregiver becomes a grudge job. In such cases, are we not the architects of our own misery?

Alas, there is hope! Within homes for the disabled, I see elements of interdependence, of support and caring, of love and empathy. I also see it in those selfless individuals that go beyond the giving of funds and spend time with disabled people. When it comes to caregivers, I believe that this is what we should aspire to – we should bury our arrogance of entitlement and simply care for one another. Perhaps then, sometime in the future, there will no longer be a need for laws that regulate our needs. And care will be embraced back into our communities. Because after all, is that not our greatest aspiration? Just to belong.